Ray Ross Bass is different, very different. The design, construction, execution and philosophy are, in fact, so different I thought I should have a place on my website devoted to the how's and whys, at least to illustrate that an instrument is most certainly more than the sum of its parts. I can certainly get quite technical and nerdy about this stuff, and definitely passionate as well, but it is sort of my job in a sense to do so. Being a musician myself, I can certainly appreciate an instrument maker's take on the instrument and how he or she fits into the universe of strings and tone. If you buy a bass, you are buying a philosophy whether you know it or not. For some, it will come out in the music you play, whether or not you can hear it, it's there.
The views expressed herein do indeed reflect the opinions of the management and its partners and affiliates. (There are no affiliates or partners.) I am indeed the management. Management makes no apologies for stepping on toes or challenging schools of conventional thought, nor will it apologize for thinking or living outside the box. Management thinks there are already too many people in the box looking for an answer that isn't there. Trust me, if the answer really was in the box, don't you think somebody would have found it by now? There are only 5 billion people in there, and the box isn't that big. Management will also readily admit that what follows are indeed opinions, hard won opinions with experience enough for them to mean something. Management also asserts that the most dangerous people on earth have absolutely NO opinion and should be avoided at all costs. That being the case, try to remember that your opinions matter most and again, these are only that of management, try not to take anything personally. As for those of you with enormous companies who have decided to dump endless shipping containers full of foreign crap all over people who just want to play a nice instrument, You can only ride name notoriety for so long and your day of reckoning is most likely at hand. Or soon will be. In the meantime, go have a few dozen more meetings focused on why your bottom line looks like shit, in the meantime management will continue building something else entirely. Real art cannot be mass produced.
That was refreshing, yes? Sometimes you just have to say it, now onto the guitar.
Design: Less is more.
Notably, all of my basses are what would be considered small when viewed in the light of most other basses. I had a suspicion that tone didn't necessarily come from mass and have experienced enough of this to be comfortable saying so. This being said I wondered why I would want to play a big bass if a little one sounds great.
The scale on all of my instruments is 32 ½", not necessarily tiny but smaller than average 34-35" range, with enough familiarity to minimize the learning curve on a new instrument. I have also tried multiple string sizes and found all to work well in this range, I myself prefer light gauge but not everybody does.
The bodies are also thinner than many, averaging 1 3/16" - 1 ¼". This thinner body has made it possible to use really lovely hard woods without ending up with a 40 pound guitar.
The necks are shaped in a compound radius, always by hand, from 7/8" down to 5/8" thick.
Fret boards are also compound radiused, typical 4 string is about 18" down to 14" at the nut, always by hand.
I have a 3 degree neck angle on every bass, not just to accommodate my bridge but for overall comfort as well. That, plus the shorter, scale really does make a difference!
I most certainly favor the "less is more" when it comes to electronics as well. All my basses have a simple dual volume with a tone/treble bleed circuit, two pickups. I have many reasons for this, the first being cost. Good active preamps, eq, battery compartments etc... are expensive, enough for any instrument I make to almost double in cost. As a builder I don't have to do an enormous amount of work to fit that stuff in there. If someone wants to blow another $1800 bucks on all those switches and whatnot, that's fine. I'm happy to do that but ask yourself, "Do I already have all those bits on my combo/preamp?" For most of us the answer is yes, I do have an equalizer, boost, and such. That being the case, to think that you will improve your sound by adding another batch of bells and whistles is pure, unfortunate, self torture. It's all about the bass and the signal path. Bass sounds best flat, and the more equalizers you run through it, the more ridiculous the signal path becomes and the more your tone will suffer. I think it is human nature to wish for a magical button that will automatically make me a better player, the easy button as it were. Well friends, the truth is YOU are the only button that will make you better. Sorry you had to hear that from me. In the meantime, if you bought a bass with simple electronics, you would have all that money to spend on a nice amp! This is almost as important as the instrument itself.
While we are on the subject of tone, I would be remiss to not mention pickups. This is one that actually does matter. I have tried a number of pickups and gone through much trouble and expense to find THE pickup. As far as I'm concerned they are Nordstrand. At the very least they are the pickup for my basses. I am a single coil man, some like the humbuckers but again with the signal, I am a purist. There is nothing hotter than a single coil with a straight signal path, less is more. In fact the hottest ever wouldn't even have a volume knob, just wired straight to the jack! That is when you get the most out of your pickup but it will cost you some hum. If you cannot stand a little hum, then the humbuckers are for you, at the expense of a little "hair" around the sound. Nordstrand also makes a lovely stacked humbucker in a single coil size. It should be said that I don't even know Mr. Nordstrand and am willing to throw a glowing endorsement to his product. Top notch.
The bridge I have already explained in the "Bridge" heading. Obviously, I am shamelessly biased to begin with. For the most part, I don't understand how we made it to 2015 and NOBODY thought about this? They didn't, trust me (I had to do the patent search). I guess we have all said something like, "Why didn't I think of that?" Well this one was mine. I am indeed proud of my little creation, especially because it works! The one thing I don't like about brass is that it tarnishes and this is a pain to clean. Everybody's bridge certainly does get nasty though, not just these. The next batch will be stainless, but cost more due to the difficult machining. Stainless is also a living metal and I am most curious as to the sound.
I am one who appreciates floating fret boards, I like the look, I like the feel, I just like them. I don't make them on every bass and I suspect slap players might be annoyed, but I don't have any slap players to ask. Either way it is an easy change.
The neck and neck joint could honestly warrant an entire chapter. As someone who has spent an unbelievable amount of time just thinking about this I will try to do the subject brief justice. I will also try to be fair in the realms of fact and opinion. I have never, nor will I ever, cut a neck out of a solid piece of wood. This is the Achilles heel of the instrument world, ask anyone who lost a headstock off of a Les Paul, simply because it fell over. Allow me to explain. The alternative to the one piece neck is what is called a "scarf joint". Down where the neck meets the headstock is where all the bad juju happens. There are reasons for this; for the most part it is physics, wood physics to be more precise. If you were to cut a neck ala Fender or Gibson (one piece), where the neck bends you wind up with these little tiny wood fibers that are very short and very weak. That is not opinion, that is fact. To counteract this, companies build a swell or volute into that area to counteract the weakness but the short tiny wood grains remain. Volute or not, that is where the instrument is going to break 99 percent of the time. That being the case, aren't you glad you bought a bolt on neck? (More on that in a minute.) By introducing a different direction of wood grain through a scarf joint and sandwiching that piece between two other pieces of wood i.e. the fret board and the neck itself, you end up with a vastly superior and structural joint.
"Why doesn't everybody make this joint?" you might ask. Well, it's simple really. It's a pain in the ass for starters, time consuming and it must be right. It is also not a process that lends itself to volume manufacturing. I think there might be a little bit of, "Of course it's a shitty neck joint but when it breaks, I might be able to sell you another one," mentality there. This is a nice segway to the other end of the neck and the joint where it meets the body.
Here we go with opinions. Some say that a neck through bass is the way to go for endless sustain. Still more say that for attack (the speed at which the note becomes available) a bolt on is the way to go. These guys feel that way, of course, because if the headstock breaks I can replace the neck. The next camp says that glue in is the way because the neck becomes one piece with the rest of the guitar and can now resonate freely as one. Would you believe they are all right? Yep, they are. Nothing is "free" and this is a perfect example. Sustain is readily available on a neck through instrument but it does take the note some time to develop. We are talking milliseconds here but if you did a side by side comparison you would definitely feel and hear the difference. I personally tried it and, "Surprise!" I prefer the glue in or "set neck". It has the sustain of the neck through and the attack of the bolt on and because of the scarf joint, is the best option as far as I am concerned. Still, to this day, I refuse to make a bolt on neck, nor will I. Also again with the bias, the Ray Ross bridge does an absolutely marvelous job of providing endless sustain, never mind the neck. I would also point to a man wiser than I who said, "I don't know much about tone or sustain; you want sustain? Practice for three hours a day." If you play bass and you don't know who Carl Thompson is, you damn well should, look him up.
A word on brass
I have always and will continue to use brass as a nut material. I have already made several references to "living metal", this is another prime example. I was recently in a music store and some rude prick said something along the lines of, "Oh yeah, they did brass stuff back in the 70's , nobody bothers with that now, it's outdated". I mostly hate music stores, but I digress. Here is a little experiment for you. Take a piece of brass, nut sized to be fair and hold it in your hand. Now in the other hand, take bone, graphite, whatever the latest greatest nut material is that is "in style". Now here's the hard part, might be a little complicated; you might have to make a couple of tries to get it right, that's o.k. Are you ready for this? Now drop that shit on the concrete floor and listen to what happens. I like to think that because I have four kids I have a tremendous amount of patience. Well, I can handle a smug prick, I can handle someone that doesn't know what they are talking about, but a smug prick that doesn't know what he talking about?.. I'm done. Try the experiment, I'm sure that at least it would serve as a walking and chewing bubble gum type of test, you know with both hands grasping and then letting go of something.....
A few words on artistic license...
Artistic license means everything to me. The way I see it, I have two options:
I try to be Mr. Custom. Custom everything, custom inlays, custom bodies, custom sizes not mine, a 5 carat custom diamond in the headstock, a custom solid gold something or another, custom headstock inlay with 15 different colors of pearl to make the beautiful dragon that runs down the fret board. You get the idea. There are many, many builders that love this type of work, personally I do not. Don't get me wrong, I am happy to build someone a special one of a kind instrument which will dramatically increase the price, but let's look at the price shall we?
Somewhere around 300 or so hours is what I would spend sitting on a stool completing said dragon. If I charge five dollars an hour that means you will pay an extra $1500 dollars for said dragon. That's a lot of money added to the cost of your bass. Now let me ask you this, would you want to sit on a stool that long for five dollars an hour? Me neither. What If I charged you $40 an hour for the same thing? That is something like a good wage in the middle of America. That dragon just cost an extra $12,000 over and above the cost of the instrument and I just priced myself out of a job. If I just made you the bass, I could almost do two more basses in the time it took to make your dragon; which leads me to option two.
I could make basses the way I like, in an efficient and productive fashion and let you know when I'm done. This way, everything is done exactly the way I think it should be. Everything where it is needed nothing where it isn't. Remember, less is more. All the while you, the customer, are getting an heirloom quality, professional grade bass that is ready to go to work and at a reasonable price. Granted, you can still pick the woods, and such, but because I control how the instrument is made, I can maintain a fast turnaround with proven system that I know will work, ultimately leading to your complete satisfaction.
A few words about "made by hand"
Ray Ross basses are indeed made by hand, so what does that mean? Well for starters there are no blanks, no forms, no molds or templates or computer programs. I start from scratch with only raw materials and see the instrument through every step of the way, personally. A simple search of builders will yield useful information as to what handmade really means. The bottom line is that precious few of us are really making this stuff by hand, the old slow way. Some builders actually express that they "hand inspect" or "hand sand" or my personal favorite, "hand rubbed oil finish". I love that one because it is the ONLY way to apply an oil finish anyway! Actually," hand inspect" might be my favorite. What that means is, "I bought a robot to make my guitars and please don't judge me, especially because I hand inspect every instrument!".... c'mon dude. One guy comes into the shop every day to rub each guitar with a piece of sandpaper so he can say he made them. Not only do I find this behavior deceitful but what is more egregious, is that people like that guy give no recognition to the hard working folks that are actually doing the work. That I find despicable. Nothing is free and if you find yourself producing 5000 guitars a year, you better drop the handmade thing.
I have deep feelings about this issue, obviously, but then I am a bit of a renaissance man. I certainly don't bemoan anyone with a big company, but I am proud of the fact that I hew these instruments from logs and they turn out as well as they do, on par with some of the biggest, fanciest names out there. Not many people can say that. My shop is Spartan at best. A casual glance around would offer no shiny, fancy tools with digital readouts. I have a Grizzly bandsaw, a Grizzly planer, a 1964 Shopsmith with various attachments (marvelous tool), and hand tools as far as the eyes can see. That's it; I don't even have heat or air conditioning! I love my hand planes and use them every day. They provide an intimacy with the work piece that is lost in modern shop scenarios. Those guys don't know what they are missing! I can safely say that there isn't one square millimeter on my instruments that I have not loved. That's what it's all about for me, the love. You ever wonder why the peanut butter and jelly sandwich your mom made you always tastes better than the one you made? How is that possible? If the same material, same knife, same plate are used? What is the difference? It's the love! There is no other logical explanation; it's the same with my instruments. This I believe is why truly handmade instruments are indeed better and I will continue to do things this way until I'm dead.
A word on paint
To me there is nothing more beautiful than a piece of wood. Why would you make a guitar out of wood and then paint it? Oh wait, I know, I know, because it was a shitty piece of wood to begin with, and now it's just a shitty piece of wood colored green or purple or whatnot... I don't paint guitars so don't ask.
A word on originality
A quick search on high end guitars will yield an immeasurable number of folks who took an existing bass and laid it on a piece of wood, traced it out and made a new bass. Only they call it "theirs". The latter is indistinguishable from the prior except the name on the headstock is different. Furthermore, I am unclear as to how they justify the price of their bass which is thousands more than the other bass. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure how that is even legal. The customer could have bought a bass for 600 bucks and called it good. Maybe that bass has a Shittier piece of wood under all that paint and bondo than the other bass, thereby making you damn lucky to get the one that cost thousands and thousands of dollars. Whew! Dodged a bullet there!
A word on finishes
I have two favorites, Tung oil (hand rubbed of course) and matte poly. Tung oil is almost as shiny as lacquer but 10% of the work, and thinner than lacquer. It is easily repaired and maintained. Wipe on flat poly is something I said I would never do, that is until I did one. It leaves an invisible finish on bare wood that can be easily maintained for the life of the instrument and is unbelievably thin. Thin is the name of the game here folks, and while I do sometimes, and have done lacquer finishes, it is thick, heavy and gobbles up tone like nobody's business. Yet another example of "nothing is free". Furthermore it is a bear to repair, cracks and yellows with age (some find this desirable) and doubles the time it takes to complete an instrument. Less is more. As a general rule I also abhor pore filler, it is also a tone devourer.
A few words on wood
I could probably talk for days about this most wonderful material; I dare say the finest structural material ever designed. The only limitations of wood are your own imagination. Well, I probably wouldn't make a lunar lander out of the stuff, but it does make a wonderful instrument material. My passion for wood doesn't start with the woodworker supply store, it starts with the tree. I love me some trees, beautiful shade providing trees. Almost all of the maple in my current instruments came from a farmer's field. He was going to cut this log for firewood! A hard maple log to be precise, a log whose rings I stopped counting at 220. There were easily another 80 left! A log like this can hardly be purchased today. Unfortunately, most old growth trees are gone, forever. Commercial timber is harvested on a 60 year growth cycle now because it is not cost effective to wait for the tree to reach 2-300 years. When a tree is that old, it has become "old growth". The tree keeps growing, only much, much slower.
These trees exist mainly in only one place, towns. Town parks, older town neighborhoods, town school grounds, etc... Here is the economic problem with these logs. Everyone would love to sell that big walnut in the front yard if they are going to cut it down anyway, why not get paid for it, right? Wrong! Lumber mills will not buy town logs because of the metal they may contain. Nails, staples, barbed wire, even remnants of civil war grape-shot and bullets all wreak havoc on saw blades and equipment, and they cannot afford down time on their expensive machinery. So, what happens is everybody agrees it is worthless and it is cut into little rounds and thrown into the fire. If I had a soapbox issue, this would be it. Usually by the time I find it, it is already ruined and useless. This to me is so sad because that type of wood is becoming rarer than Brazilian rosewood.
I convinced this farmer to stay his axe if I could find a sawmill that would cut this log. "Christmas morning" is the only term I could use to convey what followed. Every board that came out was better than the last, we did stop a few times to change blades, there were indeed bits of nail and civil war remnants within, but everybody agreed it was worth the effort. When you see one of my instruments with a really pretty top, it indeed came from this amazing piece of trash. Just think "firewood" when you see these pieces and you will begin to understand the gravity of the subject material.
I have begun a side mission of trying to intercept these logs when I catch wind of them, ultimately being led to... you guessed it... city governments. I could also write a book on the inefficiencies of local government but not today. I am indeed always directed to the "next guy" who promptly tells me it's not his decision, then to the next guy and the next guy, and so it goes. Meanwhile, the log is shredded to make the most awful, stinky, useless mulch and everybody feels good because they did something "sustainable". I think I just threw up in my mouth a little. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate my city and the effort it puts forth to make things nice and such, but I find a profound lack of vision on their part and it is depressing as hell. Maybe one day I will have the necessary connections and equipment to make this crusade a viable alternative to just trashing these beautiful beasts. In the meantime, if you know of a huge beautiful maple destined for destruction, let me know. Maybe I can come up with the means to come get it.
I do also have a vast appreciation for indigenous wood; I also believe that every continent has its own suitable "tonewoods". For example, I live in Missouri. We have maple and walnut of course, but also oak for days and days. Man, this stuff is everywhere. After much scientific research, someone concluded that the closest thing to the tonal characteristics of Brazilian rosewood is indeed white oak! I have not tested this myself but I can concur after decades of woodworking that oak would make a perfectly suitable guitar. I have not tried this mostly because I don't think many people would be excited to have a bass that looks like a barstool. Maybe I'm wrong. Persimmon is in the ebony family, and I'm sure would be a suitable fretboard, but blonde in color and not nearly as stunning as the ebony. The market will determine what works and what doesn't, I suppose.
I would also be negligent to not mention exotic species. Now, you will probably hear some bias. Along with being a "woodgeek" I am also a wood snob of the highest order. While wood is very useful for so many things, it is my unapologetic opinion that there is no higher calling for a beautiful piece of wood than to become a musical instrument. Some species and cuts are ill-suited for guitars. Many exotics don't get very big, an example would be snakewood. Very expensive, very tiny pieces, only suitable for pen turning or maybe a nice salad bowl? I am reaching here because I don't do lathe work; the point being, not all exotics are suitable for the guitar. That being said, many species are indeed suitable. Rosewood and ebony are indeed among my favorites. As a fretboard, they both offer distinct tonal advantages. I myself prefer an ebony fretboard and wish I had more of it to work with. It provides a "snappiness" while rosewood provides a "warmth". Other species are just as well suited for fretboards. Padauk has become a favorite of mine (see the five string in the gallery). It is a lovely orange color, nice to work with and sounds as good as Brazilian rosewood. Furthermore, it is plentiful and doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Purpleheart has also become a favorite for the same reasons. Cocobolo is one of the prettiest rosewoods native to central America. Available but expensive, it is a very, very greasy/oily wood, very hard and wrecks saw blades in seconds. I made an electric guitar for a friend of mine who loved it by the way. It also ruined every blade in my shop, some of them twice. I decided there would be a $500 tool fee for anyone who asked for something else in cocobolo. Buyer beware.
While on the subject of rosewood, a brief story.
A friend of mine called one day and asked if I needed rosewood. Of course the answer was yes. Apparently a limousine company in the area had gone out of business and a third party had purchased a pallet of "rosewood" at auction. We split the bill and bought it all! Once home I began to examine these boards and some of them are still a mystery. I know that within the pile were indeed Bolivian, Honduran, and Brazilian rosewoods. Some of these boards still remain unidentified. The amazing thing was that all these boards were in the 7-9 foot range. Not very long but special because to my knowledge, no one has been able to buy rosewood from South America in those dimensions since the 1960's or 70's. How long had this stuff been just sitting at the limousine company? Oh well, their loss. Personally, I was ecstatic to save this material from becoming dashboards and wet bar accessories! There is a little bit of snobbery for you. At any rate, all the rosewood in my guitars has come from this pile of material and I have been very grateful for it. I did go through a bit of a "heyday" at first, I made a six string bass out of solid rosewood. It turned out pretty good but weighs almost 12 pounds. Fun for 20 minutes and then you don't want any more of that!
I feel as though I should also mention the various treaties and such involving exotic lumber. Nowadays, it is illegal to harvest trees like Brazilian rosewood, that is if you are an outsider. The locals have been slashing that stuff for years to make room for cattle and such. I don't blame them, a man has to eat. A treaty is only as good as its participants however. We can all say "I hereby promise to not take this wood". That is just fine by me. However, this is what happens: That is a source of income for the indigenous people who rightfully own it, but along comes China through the back door because they know the natives will still sell it. They are the ones devastating the forest. Then, they load it all on boats and try to get the hell out of there before anyone notices. Next, China goes home and uses that wood for all manner of cheap tacky crap and guess what? You can't have any of it, unless, of course, you want to buy their cheap tacky crap. I sincerely have a problem with this. Meanwhile, what that means to you and I is this: You leave the country with a guitar, you go through customs with your guitar in the country you will be playing and somebody says, "Hey that looks like an endangered species." They will promptly confiscate the guitar and destroy it. Good job, fellas! Way to go! You really got the bad guy this time!
I have a friend in the exotic lumber business who told me China was recently busted hurriedly loading cocobolo at the docks in Guatemala. Caught red-handed is the order of the day. They were made to unload every board right there. This pile of lumber, to put it all into perspective was the size of a football field stacked 12 feet deep! So before you (if you are inclined) drag somebody over the coals about using some kind of endangered species, don't. I can assure you that a small guitar maker who can make no more than 24 instruments a year is clearly not the villain here. It is furthermore of great importance to redirect that anger at the bad guys where it belongs, and stop buying Chinese crap! No treaty will provide that, that starts with you. I don't expect that I will be selling any basses to China.
I almost forgot about old wood. Everybody likes a nice piece of furniture, including me. I however will not hesitate to murder a piece of furniture if I know there is something wonderful in there. Just ask my wife.
My mother died 14 years ago and had amassed a collection of antiques that might make the queen of England blush. Many of these pieces had been painted various trendy colors over the years. Over the course of a winter, I stripped many of these pieces in the garage. Stripper is nasty stuff and I grew tired of the process. Among these antiques, was a bed frame made of walnut. It was huge, ornate and definitely built a long time ago. It was also falling apart. After some research, I realized you can quite accurately date a piece of furniture by the nails that were used. Nails sort of evolved like a lot of other things. Turns out "Cut" nails were used on this bed and were employed between 1830 and 1870, after that they became something else. Anything in the 18th century didn't have nails, so you can't date everything this way. After planing and shaping some of these pieces into useable material I noticed something. Crystals. Wood has sap that remains in the board forever. This sap actually takes way longer to solidify than the board does to dry. This means that a usable board has between 8-10% moisture, at least in this latitude, but the sap remains not quite liquid but maybe at least somewhat viscous. From there it requires significantly more time for this sap to crystallize and actually become hard. This of course is why it is desirable for any instrument maker. Think of those old Martin guitars that sound so good. If we were to run one of those through a table saw (God forbid) we would indeed find crystals within the wood. There is no mechanical process we could employ that would imitate this process, only time will do.
I have used this wood in several projects, number 12 has a cherry neck that is about 100 years old, sounds amazing. Number 20, the five string in the gallery holds the last piece of this phenomenal wood that I had. This one also sounds amazing. You might think wood this old to be quite spongy and useless, on the contrary. I don't normally do walnut necks by the way, I prefer maple. The result of properly aged old wood is indeed light weight and exceptionally stiff. That is why I use these bits in instruments, all whilst marveling at the "flavor crystals". One of the concepts I try to wrap my head around while contemplating this old wood is this: This wood had been in board form for 150 years and being old growth timber, could have been 300 years old when the tree was felled. The pilgrims could have peed on this tree when they got off the boat! Talk about an old guitar! My first bass has a poplar top on it. Poplar is a very uninteresting wood to be sure, but this poplar came from a potty chair made and used in the 1700's. Kind of gross but old wood is old wood. That bass really did sound good. In the future I hope to offer more of these options; I think I need to buy some more furniture though.